Meditation is not just for spiritual gurus and patchouli-wearing hippies anymore.
Because of its proven benefits on everything from sleep to productivity, focus, mood, and stress reduction, it’s quickly becoming the daily practice of Marines, pro-athletes and world-class performers in all fields.
Although meditation is one of the fastest growing health trends, its fundamentals—what it is, what it does and how to do it —remain ill-defined. Couple that confusion with the frustration that many people experience when learning a new skill, and the beginner meditator is tempted to throw in the timer before their practice starts paying off.
However, the primary issue holding people back isn't an aversion to patchouli oil and Tibetan singing bells, it's a lack of clarity and understanding. In this article, we’ll cover the top three misconceptions about meditation so you can start your own practice with knowledge, confidence, and clear expectations.
Meditation is NOT exclusively a new age spiritual thing. It’s simply mental training.
Author and Podcaster Tim Ferriss once explained that meditation has a “branding problem":
"A lot of people would think of yoga instructors playing didgeridoos, swinging dream-catchers over their heads—and they wouldn't be entirely wrong in a lot of cases."
However, roughly 80 percent of the world’s most successful people that he interviewed in his book Tools of Titans, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Amelia Boone, all have a regular meditation practice.
According to Tim, “Of all the routines and habits, the most consistent among guests is some form of daily meditation or mindfulness practice.”
This is because top performers understand that desirable mental states, such as extreme focus and self-reflection, are trainable—and meditation serves as the gym.
All meditation techniques can help us improve concentration power, the ability to focus on what is relevant at any given moment and dismiss what is not. Mindfulness, equanimity, and emotional regulation are also on the menu of trainable skills considered by the world’s best to be real life superpowers.
In addition to the development of these superpowers, meditation helps buffer us from what is considered to be human kind’s kryptonite: The default mode of the human mind. Dan Harris refers to it as “the voice in our head”, which he points out, is often an @$$hole. The untrained mind tends to default to a state of excessive analysis, distortion, bias, emotional reactivity, and perpetual distractibility—characteristics most humans can relate to!
But if you cannot dissociate from the unconscious mind, you cannot align your actions with the healthiest version of who you are and who you aim to be. Meditation provides mental training to recognize “the voice in our head” and consciously choose how to respond.
Meditation is NOT any and all activity that de-stresses, unplugs, or distracts you from the chaos of your life.
Most of us consistently dedicate time and energy to activities that are calming, such as exercising, cooking, or walking. It’s common to refer to these activities as “meditation”. However, this is confusing meditation with de-stressing.
It’s important to know that the essence of meditation is not just something that makes you feel calm; it’s the intentional practice of training a particular internal skill by directing your focus.
For example, if you are wanting to cultivate better concentration, your meditation might involve directing your full focus to some part of your sensory experience, be it your breath, a sound, or a mantra. When your attention wanders, you acknowledge it and return to the object of focus. That is considered one repetition. String together enough focused moments and reps, and you’ve got yourself a meditative practice!
For a practice to be considered “meditation”, the specific activity, object of focus and strategy for noting distractions can vary, but the essential mechanics of attention should not.
In this way, you can certainly meditate while you’re doing other things like exercising, gardening, walking in nature or listening to music, as long as you are focusing and refocusing your attention, as opposed to letting your mind run rampant in the background. On the other hand, one can be doing traditional meditative activities like formal sitting, chanting, or yoga, but be completely lost in thought, rendering the activity useless in the context of training the mind.
To sum it up, the mechanics of your inner experience and the skills you’re training are what qualify an activity as a meditation, not the activity’s calming aftereffects.
You don’t HAVE to sit cross-legged on a pillow.
As previously discussed, for an activity to “count” as meditation, there needs to be an object of focus and a deliberate effort to refocus when distracted. With that in mind, there are as many different ways to practice meditation as there are moments in your day. A useful distinction to make is between formal and informal practices.
A formal practice is 10 minutes or more of dedicated time where all of your attention is focused on the technique. The environment is relatively controlled with a minimal amount of distraction and the activity is simple.
For example: Sitting comfortably on a cushion while listening to a 15-minute guided meditation before work.
An informal practice is less than 10 minutes, can be planned or spontaneous, and is either a short burst of full concentration (ex., 10-30 seconds) or longer intervals of graded focus where most of your awareness is on the technique while some is reserved for whatever is going on in the background. The environment is generally more chaotic than your formal practice and the activity is more complex.
For example: Standing in line at the coffee shop while waiting to order, focusing your attention on the aroma of the fresh coffee.
Just like training in the gym, every rep counts. For the purpose of making meditation a habit that translates into daily life, using a combination of formal and informal practices throughout your day can be a helpful tactic.
Meditation is popularized as the ultimate life hack of the world’s top performers; so if you value personal development, it’s hard not to want to give it a try. And with so many free and easy-to-use meditation apps, the barrier to entry has never been lower.
However, there’s a lot no one tells you about meditation which can lead to misdirection, unmet expectations, and ultimately failure to make it a habit. On the flip side, if you go into it understanding a few big ideas, your chances of success are much higher.
The first big idea is to view meditation as mental training. Meditation’s mainstream allure is strong; however, it’s not a magic pill that you take with water. Rather, it’s a daily practice that takes time and deliberate effort to develop. It may be simple, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s easy. Having healthy expectations in this regard will empower you to stick it out.
Secondly, not everything that calms you down counts as meditation. Because of its effectiveness with stress, many incorrectly perceive meditation to be anything that relaxes them. Since it’s mental training, the key qualifier is the deliberate attention paid to cultivating specific skills.
Lastly, just like strength training can be done with barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells, mental training can take many forms. The beginner meditator should experiment with formal and informal practices in order to make it a habit that sticks. This can help ensure your training transfers from the mental gym to daily life, which is the ultimate goal!